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Diary: This American Road, Ozark

Cross-country 2015 - 42

Ozark, Arkansas — it sounds like the name of a freeway exit you’d take pains to avoid using, or the name of one of those forbidding small towns in movies where the main character’s car breaks down and Bad Things Happen but you ultimately kind of blame the victim because, come on, Ozark, Arkansas. But we took the Ozark offramp with the greatest deliberateness, aiming for an early dinner at Rivertowne Barbecue, which came recommended to us by a genuine Arkansas native back in Los Angeles. You’ll notice I linked to Rivertowne’s web site, the fact of whose existence alone I found reassuring: it’s okay, they know about the internet, this is modern, literate, non-lawless Ozark of the 21st century.

ozark square

Still, I had low expectations, less in the Deliverance sense than that I’d envisioned Rivertowne, which first opened in 2000, located in a dreary, auto-oriented strip the likes of which I’ve already seen more than enough of sprouting off and alongside Interstate 40, maybe between a Wal-Mart on one side and a Sam’s Club on the other. But we found it in a traditional, almost classical town square that looked to have hosted an event involving quite a few tents, trucks, and stands just an hour or two before. There, hung in the back of one of the trucks whose owners hadn’t yet finished packing up their wares, I noticed the first Stars and Bars of the trip so far. I wondered how wary I should feel at finally spotting this ultimate signal of Confederate pride, or whether it should pleasantly surprise me that I’d spotted so few so far, or whether any of it meant anything at all.

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Mostly I just felt hungry, and ever more grateful for the presence of Rivertowne with each downtown Ozark business, all already closed for the day by late afternoon, we passed along the way. When we sat down to eat, we found that the bustle inside the restaurant balanced out the utter quiescence of the town around it. Artifacts of vintage Arkansas life, including old street signs off the main drag of Commercial Street and a large metal oval mounted above our booth proudly advertising Grapette soda (with “IMITATION GRAPE FLAVOR”) surrounded us, with nary a banner of Dixie to be seen. A framed portrait hanging by the bathroom immortalized Rivertowne’s first paying customer. A high-heeled teenager in bright purple jeans came in with her family, the heavy makeup and first-place sash she wore attesting to a fresh beauty-pageant victory.

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In the unlikely event that I need to come by Ozark again, I’ll make a point of returning to Rivertowne. We speak often — especially often in election season — of the existence of not one but multiple Americas, each of which lives in ignorance and misunderstanding of all the others. I knew this road trip would take us through a host of Americas about which I personally have, to this point, lived in ignorance and misunderstanding, and the likes of Rivertowne, at the hour or indeed in the era when the emptied-out town square retains the form but no longer fulfills the function, provides a visually and sonically (they have accents here!) rich observatory of this particular America in action. And it also offers an equally satisfying plate of brisket, pork, ribs, and “Texas toast” superior, I might add, to the Texas toast I had at our last barbecue stop — in Amarillo, Texas.